Paths to Modernization

Modernising the Economy

Modernization of economy was another important part of the Meiji reforms. Agricultural tax helped in raising the funds. The first railway line (between Tokyo and Yokohama) was built in 1970-72. Textile machinery was imported from Europe. Foreign technicians were employed to train workers. Foreign teachers were brought in to teach in universities and schools. Japanese students were sent abroad. Modern banking institutions were launched in 1872. Some companies were given subsidies and tax benefits to become major shipbuilders so that Japanese trade could be carried in Japanese ships. Zaibatsu dominated the economy till after the Second World War. Large business organization controlled by individual families was called Zaibatsu.

The population increased from 35 million in 1972 to 55 million in 1920. Migration was actively encouraged to reduce population pressure. People were encouraged to migrate to Hokkaidu, and then to Hawaii and Brazil, and to the growing colonial empire of Japan. There was a growth in urbanization. By 1925, 21% of the population lived in cities. This figure jumped to 32% by 1935.


Industrial Workers

The number of workers in manufacturing increased from 700,000 in 1870 to 4 million in 1913. More than 50% employed in modern factories were women. It was only in the 1930s that the male workers began to outnumber women. The number of factories with more than a hundred workers was just over 1,000 in 1909. This figure jumped over 2,000 by 1920, and 4,000 by 1930s. But even in 1940, over 550,000 workshops employed less than five employees. This sustained the family-centred ideology.

The rapid and unregulated growth of industry led to environmental destruction. Tanaka Shozo (elected to the first House of Representatives) launched the first agitation against industrial pollution in 1897 in which 800 villagers participated. This forced the government to take action.


Aggressive Nationalism

There was limited voting right and the Diet (Parliament) had limited powers. Power was still in the hands of people who brought about the imperial restoration. Those leaders formed political parties. Popularly elected prime ministers took the reign between 1918 and 1931. After that, they lost power to national unity cabinets formed across party lines. The emperor was the commander of the forces. From 1890, this meant that the army and the navy had independent control. In 1899, the prime minister ordered that only serving generals and admirals could become ministers. This strengthened the military. The opposition was silenced with the fear that Japan was at the mercy of the Western powers.

‘Westernisation’ and ‘Tradition’

Japanese intellectuals of Meiji’s time argued for shedding the ‘Asian’ characteristic so that Japan could be properly westernized. The next generation argued for national pride built on indigenous values. Many intellectuals were impressed by liberalism in the West and wanted democracy in Japan. Some intellectuals even argued for voting rights for women. Ultimately the government was forced to announce a constitution.

Daily Life

Japan had a tradition of patriarchal household in which many generations lived together under the control of the head of the house. As more people became affluent, new home (homu) of the nuclear family became the norm. The nuclear family created demand for domestic goods, new types of family entertainment and new forms of housing.


‘Overcoming Modernity’

State-centred nationalism found full expression in the 1930s and 1940s. During this period, Japan launched wars to expand its empire in China and other parts of Asia. This war merged into the Second World War after Japan attacked the USA at Pearl Harbor. This period saw greater controls on society. Dissidents were repressed and imprisoned. Patriotic societies were formed to support the war. Many intellectuals and artists debated on the issue of becoming modern along with combating the West. It was argued that an integration of science and religion was necessary to establish a Greater East Asia.

After Defeat: Re-emerging as a Global Economic Power

Japan was defeated by the Allied forces; after nuclear bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Under the US-led Occupation (1945-47) Japan was demilitarized. A new constitution was introduced. The Constitution had Article 9 (‘no war clause’) that renounces the use of war as an instrument of state policy. Many reforms were carried out; like agrarian reforms, re-establishment of trade unions and dismantling of zaibastu (large monopoly houses). Political parties were revived and the first post-war elections were held in 1946. Women voted for the first time in these elections.

After that, rapid rebuilding of the Japanese economy was called a post-war ‘miracle’. This could be possible because of Japan’s long history of intellectual thinking and people’s participation in the political process. The government, bureaucracy and industry worked in close coordination. US support, and demand created by the Korean and the Vietnamese wars also helped the Japanese economy.

The 1960s saw the growth of civil society movements because industrialization had been taking place with utter disregard to health and environmental consequences. Pressure groups began to demand recognition of environmental problems and compensation for the victims. Government action and new rules helped in improving the conditions. Now, Japan has some of the strictest environmental controls in the world.



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